I Left My Job to Help Women: The Microlending Film Project
In September 2009, I was working as a Futures Trader on the European shift—which is in the middle of the night, Chicago time. And I loved it. But it was while I was there that I first came across The Women's Crusade, a New York Times op-ed by Nick Kristof. Kristof told the stories of women in the developing world, women who faced terrifying, seemingly insurmountable odds. But he also told how some of them were overcoming those odds with a tool I’d then heard little about: microfinance. I was floored.
I was intrigued, too. In my own small way, I felt I could relate to these women. I cared about their struggles, and I was astonished to learn how much $25 could benefit a person, how these small loans could put women on a path to self-sufficiency. Microlending, I saw, could bring real economic change to impoverished communities.
I had studied film in undergrad, and I’d loved movies since I was a kid. And this topic, it suddenly occurred to me, would make for an amazing documentary.
Though I’d made a few shorts in school, I’d never made a feature documentary and knew virtually nothing about production. If I was going to do this, it was first imperative that I surround myself with professionals.
So I first found a Director of Photography, Steve Hiller, a veteran of more than 50 studio Hollywood films who joined my team as a volunteer. With Steve on board, I was able to attract a second camera who has himself worked 16 studio films, an editor who’s cut several films for Oscar-nominated documentarian Jon Alpert, and a composer who has produced for the Grammy-nominated Shiny Toy Guns.
In 2010, while on a short vacation from my trading job, the crew and I traveled to South America for the first of four shoots on four different continents. And with that start, the project was becoming a reality.
Why Leave a Job You Love?
At first, I planned to return to my job. I love trading, and I often told people that trading was the greatest real job you could have. It suited my huge dislike for playing politics in an office setting—if you made or lost money, you had only yourself to blame. It also appealed to my desire to take risks and to avoid the bureaucratic haze of corporate America.
But over the course of my career, it became increasingly evident that much of the criticism about the trading world was all too true—particularly in its attitude toward women. At my first trading firm, I was the only female trader. During the 2008 presidential elections, I’d hear my colleagues yelling at the TV, telling Sarah Palin to “go back in the kitchen.” Seriously. Though I largely disagreed with Palin’s politics, that didn’t lessen the sting of those remarks. Was the trading world the last bastion of old school sexism in the “modern” work world?
At my last trading firm, my boss told me one day they would be interviewing another female trader, so that I would “have a friend.” “Cool,” I muttered sarcastically. He then took the opportunity to tell me that “a lot of trading firms will see a woman’s resume and just throw it out, but we welcome women here.” I think maybe he was looking for a high five.
I resigned the next day, wondering if this man would have made a similar remark to an employee who was African-American, or who had an obviously Jewish last name. I still have no idea what made him imagine it was okay to say something so blatantly offensive.
Taking the Plunge
After that, having made more than I had expected to make by 25, I decided to quit trading and work on the film full-time. It’s been scary to embark on an unknown path, living off of my savings, and hoping to find people that are as excited about this project as I am.
Despite the risk (and, in part, because of the risk), I have loved the thrill. In trading, while I was staring at the yield curve trying to anticipate whether it was going to flatten or steepen, I wasn’t creating anything or helping anyone. But making this film and spreading awareness about microfinance, I believe that what I’m doing each day will make a difference. I’ve never been personally happier.
Of course, it hasn’t been easy. It’s been a huge lifestyle change. I sleep on a mattress on the floor, and I’ve lived in Manhattan on less than $2,000 a month for the past year. All of my savings have gone into making this film. But thanks to grants from generous supporters at Duke University, a private investor, and micropledges through sites like Kickstarter, I’ve managed to keep it going.
Now, we’re almost done. We’ve finished filming, and we’re now editing and submitting to all the major film festivals. Our plan is a limited theatrical release and a university tour to more than 50 universities.
I know that I’ve taken on a big risk, but I also know this is the best decision of my life. Because my driving force is my desire to give all women the opportunity to build a better life for themselves.
A Message from Rachel:
I'd like to thank everyone who supported The Microlending Film Project during our Kickstarter fundraising drive - thanks to you we not only met the goal, but exceeded it by nearly $2000! Without you, we couldn't keep the project alive. We appreciate your help so much!
This article originally appeared on Dare to Dream.
Photos courtesy of McKay Savage and Rachel Cook.
About The Author
Rachel Cook has studied film at The University of Southern California and Duke University, and Economics and Business at Duke and The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. She worked for awhile as an Equities and Eurodollar Futures Trader in Chicago and New York while studying improv and comedy writing at the iO and Second City. The Microlending Film Project, her first feature, tells the story of mothers, wives, daughters—and entrepreneurs. Armed with microloans invested in increments often as small as $25, these women work to launch businesses, pulling themselves and their families out of poverty.